Our beloved British landscape is withering. It’s on its knees, begging for relief. It’s pleading for freedom, longing to be rewilded. The countryside is dying. With less than 3% of Britain built upon, this is a difficult truth to accept. But our country, celebrated for its ostensible natural beauty, is almost entirely engineered. It is, quite paradoxically, exceptionally unnatural.
The farmlands, which constitute a significant portion of the patchwork-landscape we call our countryside, are barren. They’re agricultural deserts; wastelands, inhospitable to a huge fraction of our native fauna. The handful of creatures capable of living a solemn existence resultantly overwhelm the heaths and woodlands and are persecuted as if they were at fault. Yet, we made our country this way.
Man-made monocultures specialising in crops inedible to pollinators (particularly our chief pollinators, the bees) become impotent as they fail to house the creatures upon which their cross-fertilisation relies. Those crops which could otherwise provide nourishment are usually doused with pesticides, poisoning their prospective residents, killing them. With 87% of all flowering plants relying on pollinators these methods of farming are ecologically disastrous, and broadly so. Causing drastic reductions in pollinator populations, and thus reducing pollination in our few remaining non-agricultural countryside areas, they foster environments incapable of sustaining even moderate levels of wildlife.
But more than just damaging to ecosystems, these farming methods are both operationally and economically unsustainable (especially given the projected growth of our population). After all, “[c]rops relying on animals for pollination account for about $1 trillion of the world’s $3 trillion annual sales of agricultural produce”.
The Chinese are already having to adapt to this reality. With bees entirely extinct in certain regions of China, many farms have resorted to hand-pollination. That is, equipped with feather-tipped paintbrushes, labourers young and old are forced to pollinate every single flower individually by hand. An exhausting, inevitably underpaid and, frankly, unnecessary task. But the problem is not exclusive to China. Almond farmers within central California, relied upon for some 82% of the worlds Almond produce, spend $290 million annually hiring bee hives in order to make up for the lack of natural pollinators. Unsurprisingly, the majority of these costs are passed down to the consumers.
Considering that wild bees are capable of providing pollination services for free, these measures are nothing short of farcical. What a phenomenally effective way to waste money – destroy the natural, free and sufficient processes and then pay to replace them. Yet these examples outline fiscal procedures soon to be employed domestically, unless drastic action is taken.
Another paradigmatic example of how we are destroying our countryside, which is attracting more and more attention thanks to the work of George Monbiot and Chris Packham, is seen in the state of our highlands, hillsides and woodlands. As a result of having to keep their lands in ‘good agricultural and environmental condition’ (as mentioned in my previous post, Ramble On) farmers are literally paid – with public money, nonetheless – to prevent the growth of vegetation. Their sheep ransack our pastures, preventing woodlands from advancing, reducing the availability of potential habitats, preventing the growth of our most effective natural carbon capture and storage sinks. All the while these farms are paid subsidies in order to remain economically profitable. Its a fiscal, ecological, climatic nightmare.
We need to fundamentally rethink how we approach farming, making it compatible with an economics which doesn’t take the environment for granted (an ‘environmental economics‘ – see Tony Juniper’s ‘What Has Nature Ever Done For Us?’ for a fantastic introduction). Do I have the answer? No. Most definitely not. This deeply complex issue has nuances too delicate to mention upon without sufficient research and deliberation. But I do believe that a huge piece to this gigantic puzzle has already been discovered. And it’s called vertical farming.
Vertical farming, as a component of urban agriculture, is the practice of producing food in vertically stacked layers, integrated within urban structures. The general idea is to bring agriculture into the urban sphere, for the benefits this offers are unprecedented. Grown inside controlled environments, crops require no protection against ‘pests’ and thus produce no contaminated runoff. Internal climate control enables year-round, rather than seasonal, harvesting of crops – creating more and cheaper produce. Situated inside buildings, crops are inherently protected against severe weather events. They also use less than 10% of the water typically required in open-field farming. And, most notably, vertical farming radically reduces the amount of fossil fuels required in the production and transportation of the harvests as their produce is locally consumed.
Moreover, entwined within all of these advantages is a grand opportunity. An opportunity to return some our countryside back to nature. An opportunity to rewild our deserted landscape, or to at least allow it to rewild itself. An opportunity for nature to re-establish itself naturally. Pollinators, big and small, could greatly prosper and, with them, our wildlife could flourish.
With less demands upon rural farms, we could utilise unneeded land. We could reforest vast areas and allow natural floodplains to return. All the while we’d tremendously increase the capacity of our carbon capture and storage sinks, helping the fight against climate change or/and mitigate its effects. There’d be room for urban developments. Room for new towns, new houses, new opportunities to create jobs, to redistribute wealth. Vertical farming provides so many solutions.
Despite being relatively young an idea, vertical farms are already starting to spring up around the world. However, no government or city is yet committed to, nor explicitly supports, a complete transformation of their agricultural infrastructures. I expect most of them are too scared or lazy to seriously consider fundamental change. Who knows what our government here in Britain thinks of the idea. But I reckon it’s about time we asked them.
An agricultural reform is needed now more than ever. Let’s save ourselves from the inevitable collapse of our current agricultural system. If we’re lucky, we might just liberate our countryside in the process. Let’s give Britain a new lease of life.